It's A Kean World

Stories From A Country Sheriff

Mommy's Baby

By Jack Kean

I first met Frank Winston long after age and infirmities had required him to put his badge in a glass case. The gold star that for so long had identified him as a man of authority and power now hung on a wall next to his dusty roll-top desk. Arrest warrants, wanted posters and the history of crime in this rural county once filled the desk's every nook and cranny but today there are only forgotten letters of appreciation.

He looked like he could still make an arrest if the situation demanded and I always called him sheriff, but something in his eyes said those days were over. The sheriff was now about six feet tall, though I suspect a bit taller in his youth. In much earlier times he weighed over 250 pounds and was certainly an imposing figure to the numerous miscreants who found themselves facing his particular brand of justice.

We usually sat on the back porch overlooking a gently rolling pasture being grazed by fifteen or twenty heifers. Sometimes, when his arthritis wasn't acting up and the pin in his ankle didn't ache too much, we would walk down a cow path through scrubby hardwood trees and check on the wild plums. Walking and chewing tobacco, according to the sheriff, were about the only pleasures he had left.

I fancied myself a writer and the sheriff recounted intriguing stories of his days as a High Sheriff in the rural south. Most of the time I was spellbound by his tales and could hardly take a moment to write anything down. The sheriff said he didn't much care to be recorded-and that was that. After every visit with him I hurried home and typed for hours. He made me promise never to let anyone see these stories until he passed away and I kept that promise.

Last week I said a final goodbye to the sheriff and walked the cow path we had come to know so well. The wild plums are abundant and in a few weeks will change from green to yellow and red. I'm going to miss our visits more than anyone could ever know, but at least now you can share his experiences. I've written them in pretty much the order they were told to me and what follows is the first. It isn't the most dangerous, the strangest, or even one that required great detective skills, but it is the story that brought a tear to the old man's eyes.

* * *

The sheriff sat gingerly in a spindly rocking chair that he proudly announced was made by his grandfather and put a chew of tobacco in his mouth. He stared at the pasture for several minutes without saying a word. The story would be told in his own good time.

He began speaking deliberately with a southern drawl that made you slow down to listen. "It was early summer and things had been pretty quiet around here. Other than the usual drunks, a stolen horse and Mrs. Anderson driving her school bus into a ditch on the last day of class we hadn't been having much trouble. There were even a few empty cells down at the jail.

The two boys, Larry and Butch, played most every summer day in the creek that separated their folk's property. I'd known Larry's family since junior high school and often I'd see him wandering through the fields with his dog-the way boys do.

Late one afternoon I was getting ready to leave after stopping by to say hello to Larry's dad. About the time I got to the car I saw him running across the pasture like he was being chased by an ornery bull. I stood there and watched, wondering what had him in such a rush.

He finally got home all out of breath and looking wore out. I said something about him training for the cross-country team at school. When he caught his breath he asked me if there was a law against throwing stuff in the creek. It didn't seem too important at the time, 'cause people have been known to throw a lot of odd things in the creek." The sheriff paused to spit tobacco juice over the side of the porch. "I just never understood that...." His voice trailed off and it was a minute or two before he resumed the story.

"Anyway, I questioned just what he'd found in the creek and he said baby clothes. A sheriff hears about lots of unusual doings in his county and this didn't rate very high, but it did get me curious so I told him to bring them up to the house the next morning.

Larry was standing in the backyard holding a baby's rattle and a few tiny clothes when I got there. The boys found them floating in the creek in plastic bags. Without really knowing why, I stopped off at a couple of nearby houses to see if anyone knew how these baby things might have found their way down to the creek.

I wasn't having much luck finding anybody home until the Johnson's house. I didn't know much about them since they'd only lived down here for a year or two. Mrs. Johnson, I think her name was Fran, and a little girl were there. She seemed nice enough, but said she didn't know about the baby things found in the creek. I was ready to move on and chalk the whole thing up as just one of those insignificant mysteries of life when the girl came running up to me pointing and yelling, mommy's baby, mommy's baby, over and over. Mrs. Johnson snatched that child up and took her inside so fast it would make your head swim. It was more Mrs. Johnson's actions than anything that made me suspicious.

I got to wondering about the Johnson family and one of my deputies said they'd come here from over in Tishomingo County. I gave a call to Sheriff Thomas up there because about all I knew of the Johnson's was that Mr. Johnson drove a truck and spent a lot of time out of town. They didn't have a criminal record or anything, but what he told me gave me just enough concern and I kept on thinking about that little girl and how Mrs. Johnson had grabbed her up like she had told the biggest family secret in the world, and in a way, I guess that's what she did.

Being sheriff is hard work, luck and instinct. This case was mostly luck and a gut feeling that something wasn't right. If we'd been real busy I wouldn't have had time to mess with it, but as luck would have it, we weren't. So as soon as I hung up the phone with Sheriff Thomas I decided to go down to the creek. Sure as I'm sitting here that was the worst feeling of my life and the funny thing was I really didn't have much to go on. All Sheriff Thomas said was that the little girl's mother wasn't Fran Johnson; it was the older girl, Angie. He figured that's why they left town.

With a real sick feeling in my stomach I drove on back to the creek. You know how sometimes you just know that something bad has happened? Well, that's the way I felt. I walked up one side of the creek and down the other. I was almost ready to quit when I saw a black garbage bag hung on some roots just at the base of the bank. I climbed down and looked at that bag a long time before getting up the nerve to open it. I don't think a human being could live long enough to forget what I saw in that bag."

Like he sometimes did, the sheriff just sat there for a while lost in his memories. It was the first and only time I saw the barest hint of a tear trickle down his cheek. In a couple of minutes he composed himself and continued the story.

"I took the bag into town and dropped it over with the coroner before going back out to the Johnson place. It was like they were waiting for me. Every one of them was on the front porch. Even the little girl was just sitting there playing with a doll.

I don't remember the exact words for certain but I told them that I figured they had expected me to come sooner or later. I said that I could tell them what happened, but they knew it even better and then asked them to tell me. We just looked at each other for a while like we all knew a secret, but nobody wanted to talk about it out loud.

Eventually Angie started to cry and then she admitted the whole thing. How it was her baby and she had covered up being pregnant because she had already been forgiven for having Mary and she just couldn't ask the family to take care of another one of her babies. The baby was born one morning when nobody was home but her and Mary. I remember a lot of crying. Even Mr. Johnson was bawling like a kid.

Angie put that newborn in a black plastic garbage bag and took it down to the creek. Poor little Mary saw her and in a few days she began pulling out her old baby clothes and putting them in plastic bags and taking them down to the creek. I guess she wanted to be like her momma.

I was just a country sheriff standing there in front of this family with them all torn up and knowing that I had to arrest Angie 'cause she murdered that little infant. He didn't have a chance in this world." The sheriff used the arms on the rocking chair to push himself up and walked out to the backyard.

* * *

I don't know for sure what happened to Angie after that. The sheriff never said and I figured if it were important enough he would have told me. I do know that the subject wasn't ever discussed in town. If it had been I'm sure I would have heard something about the Johnson family. As far as I know they moved on.

Copyright 2001 by Jack Kean


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